Cordless Drill & Impact Driver Buying Guide

Cordless Drill & Impact Driver Buying Guide

A cordless drill is the most essential power tool you’ll buy. It’s the one you’ll rely on for big projects, such as building a deck and remodeling a kitchen, and for smaller tasks, like installing fixtures and assembling furniture. You might even need your drill to service other tools.

Most cordless drills these days run on lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries, which deliver more power and longer run times in a lighter package than before. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, Li-ion batteries have improved so much over the past decade that a newer drill might run 50 percent longer than a drill from seven years ago.

Many of today’s cordless drills also benefit from a motor makeover. Not long ago, brushless motors (as opposed to the more prevalent brushed variety) were reserved for contractor-oriented brands such as DeWalt, Makita, and Milwaukee, but now they’re available in modestly priced consumer drills from the likes of Kobalt, Porter-Cable, and Ridgid.

Unlike brushed motors that run at the same rate whether you’re drilling into a softwood, such as pine, or a hardwood, like oak—thereby draining the battery—brushless motors adjust to the level of resistance they encounter and use up less energy. Plus, they operate with less friction than brushed motors, allowing them to work more efficiently. They also have fewer moving parts, and because there are no brushes, you never need to think about replacing them.

Improved motors and battery life has consistently elevated brand performance in CR’s ratings, which now include impact drivers. Impact drivers are extremely powerful, compact tools that drive screws more efficiently into wood, metal, and cement than traditional cordless drills, making them a popular choice for heavy duty jobs like building decks or home improvements. 

Impact drivers and cordless drills are indispensable for those who are handy. And of the folks who own cordless drills, the majority are happy with their purchase. According to data from our exclusive member survey, two-thirds of cordless drill brands rate favorably for predicted reliability and owner satisfaction. Five brands rated Excellent in both reliability and satisfaction—Bosch, DeWalt, Makita, Milwaukee, and Ridgid.

You can spend anywhere from $30 to $300 on a new drill. Or up to $450 on an impact driver. Read on for everything you need to know to find the right tool for you.

How CR Tests Cordless Drills

We conduct all our performance testing on a benchtop dynamometer, or “dyno,” a calibrated instrument featuring a free-spinning spindle and an electronic brake. CR’s test engineers clamp each drill onto the spindle, then run it flat out at each speed, measuring maximum revolutions per minute, or RPM. These results, along with measurements taken under different loads, determine the speed score.

To calculate run time, we cycle the batteries on and off to simulate a torturous nature of stop-and-go tasks, such as building a deck. Then we completely drain each battery and time how long it takes it to recharge. And of course we use the dyno to measure torque and RPMs, which we translate into our power score. This test is a reflection of how big a hole a drill can bore, or how large a fastener it can drive.

After the calibrated tests, CR’s experts use each drill to drive screws and drill holes like you would, taking note of aspects such as balance, feel, and ease of adjusting the chuck and speed, and assign each model a score for handling. Last, we measure sound in decibels at the user’s ear to get a score for noise. As it turns out, all but the smallest models require hearing protection for safe use.

See below for advice on how to choose the best drill for you.

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Types of Drills

Before you compare individual models, you’ll want to narrow your search based on your preferred drill voltage. That’s an indication of power. Keep in mind, though, that while an 18- or 20-volt cordless drill might be more powerful than a 12-volt model, it’s also bulkier. Today’s 12-volt drills can easily drive a few hundred decking screws on a single charge and are probably all the power the typical homeowner needs. But they wouldn’t be your first choice for driving large lag bolts. For that you’d want a stout 18-volt model, perhaps an impact driver, which can also drill into brick or concrete block. 

We divide our cordless drill ratings into three categories based on how you might use the drill: heavy-duty, general-use, light-duty, and impact drivers. Manufacturers don’t market drills this way, so we use chuck size to categorize our test models. What’s a chuck? The three-pronged clamp that secures bits at the business end of any drill. It takes both cutting bits for drilling holes and driving bits for screwing in fasteners. The greater a drill’s chuck’s capacity, the bigger the bit it can hold and, typically, the more power the model will have. Which is to say, chuck size is a good proxy for how heavy-duty a drill is.

Models in our heavy-duty category are those with a ½-inch chuck, the largest size you’ll find on cordless models. General-use drills have a ⅜-inch chuck and can handle the bulk of bits you’ll probably need. Our light-duty drills typically have a fixed, ¼-inch socket, a design that accepts only bits with a hex-shaped shaft. Impact drivers are unique. Although light with a hex-shaped shaft, they can easily handle heavy-duty jobs.

Light-Duty Drills

Light-Duty Drills

This eclectic class of drills is best-suited for small jobs around the house: assembling flat-packed furniture, changing a light fixture, and drilling into drywall. Their batteries range in size from 12 volts to 20 volts, but their relatively small motors don’t spin or drive with the same force as heavy-duty or general-use drills. Further limiting their use, they have a fixed, ¼-inch socket designed to accept only ¼-inch hex bits. Still, they’re nice to have around the house.

Cordless Drills Ratings
General-Use Drills

General-Use Drills

Most people will be best served by one of these ⅜-inch chuck models. Typically powered by a 12-volt battery, they’re more powerful than they look: They can bore holes in wood with relative ease and drive a pouch full of screws on a single charge. And if you keep one battery charging while you’re working, you can always swap in a fresh one and never run out of juice. If you need to take on the occasional heavier job, you can always rent a hammer drill from a home center.

Cordless Drills Ratings
Heavy-Duty Drills

Heavy-Duty Drills

Drills in this category are built around brawny 18- to 24-volt batteries, giving them the power to drive large fasteners and bore holes through thick boards. Outfitted with ½-inch chucks, they can accept most any drill bit, including those used for jobs like drilling into brick or concrete block. All that capability means heavy-duty drills tend to be the most expensive and heaviest. So before you buy, you’ll want to hold one with the battery clipped in place to see how it handles.

Cordless Drills Ratings
Impact Drivers

Impact Drivers

Impact drivers are extremely powerful tools engineered for inserting long screws, fasteners, and lag bolts. Lots of them. Compact and lightweight, they’re designed for speed and efficiency on heavy-duty jobs like construction, deck building, or home improvements. Impact drivers aren’t equipped with chucks. Instead, they rely on hex-shaped drill bits and trigger-generated torque (up to 3 times the RPMs as drills)—so exercise caution not to overdrive screws into wood, metal, or cement. Impact drivers are typically 12-volt or 18-/20-volt tools. They’re more durable and pricier than drills, ranging between $60 and $450. 

Impact Drivers Ratings

Get a Grip on Handling

CR’s experts assign each model a score for handling, but that quality can be a personal thing. A drill should feel good in your hand.

So before buying a new one, clip in the battery and grip it to see how it handles and whether you can tolerate the weight for longer jobs. Wield it above your head, as if you were installing a smoke detector, and you’ll notice right away whether it feels too heavy. (Impact drivers are especially adept at drilling overhead.)

Some general-use drills have a pistol grip, with a cylindrical battery buried in the handle, and they are quite comfy to grasp. But with no flat battery at the base of the handle, they don’t stand upright on their own, so you’ll need to decide: Will it drive you crazy to have to lay down your drill between uses?

How Cordless Drills Are Sold

Cordless drills are sold in three configurations:
1) As a stand-alone tool with one or two batteries and a dedicated charger
2) As part of a collection of cordless tools from a single brand, called a kit
3) As a bare tool, with no battery or charger

If you want only a drill and don’t own any other power tools with compatible batteries, go for option 1. If you’re also in the market for tools such as an impact driver, a circular saw, a reciprocating saw, and a work light, consider the kit, which will give you the most value. (Just know that kits typically feature 18-volt tools, so the included drill would be a heavy-duty model.) Kits often come with two batteries and a charger. If you already have a compatible battery from a different cordless tool, a bare drill (option 3) will suffice. Option 3 is the least expensive but the worst value.

Cordless Drill & Impact Driver Brands

Black+Decker is one of the leading manufacturers and marketers of cordless drills. Black+Decker cordless drills are geared toward the consumer market and are available in multiple sizes, weights, and voltages. Black+Decker cordless drills are widely available online, in hardware stores, and at Lowe’s and Walmart.

Bosch cordless drills are geared toward the contractor market and are available in multiple sizes, weights, and voltages. Bosch cordless drills are widely available online, in hardware stores, and at Lowe’s. Bosch also makes and sells drills under the Skil brand.

Craftsman cordless drills are geared toward the consumer market and are available in multiple sizes, weights, and voltages. Craftsman drills are sold at Kmart and Sears and online at Stanley Black+Decker purchased the Craftsman brand of tools from Sears in early 2017 and intends to sell Craftsman products at new retailers, including Home Depot and Lowe’s.

DeWalt is one of the top manufacturers and marketers of cordless drills. DeWalt cordless drills are geared toward the contractor market and are available in multiple sizes, weights, and voltages. DeWalt cordless drills are widely available online, in hardware stores, and at home centers such Home Depot and Lowe’s.

Hitachi cordless drills are geared toward the contractor market and are available in multiple sizes, weights, and voltages. Hitachi cordless drills are widely available online, in hardware stores, and at Lowe’s.

Kobalt is primarily a house brand sold at Lowe’s, made by manufacturer Chevron (not the oil company). Kobalt cordless drills can be found on Amazon as well.

Makita cordless drills are geared toward the contractor market and are available in multiple sizes, weights, and voltages. Makita cordless drills are widely available online, in hardware stores, and at Home Depot and Lowe’s.

Milwaukee Tool is a manufacturer of contractor-oriented power tools and is owned by TTI. Milwaukee makes a full range of cordless drills, impact drivers, and cordless screwdrivers that are widely available at hardware stores, Home Depot, and online.

Porter-Cable cordless drills are geared toward the consumer market. They’re a step up from Black+Decker, made by the same parent company, but not in line with DeWalt, which markets its drills to both contractors and avid DIYers who want pro performance.

Ryobi is one of the leading brands of cordless drills. Ryobi drills are made by TTI, which also makes the Ridgid and Milwaukee brands. Ryobi cordless drills are geared toward the consumer market and are available in multiple sizes, weights, and voltages. Ryobi and Ridgid drill drivers are exclusive to Home Depot.

Drilling Face-Off: DeWalt vs. Hitachi

How well your cordless drill performs can make or break some home improvement projects. Consumer Reports pits two big names against each other in a drilling face-off.